Scarlet’s Letter

blackgownA reflection written in response to visionary guide Todd Kashdan (The Upside of your Dark Side) asks: “Which emotions do you feel most guilty about having? Afraid that others might find out?”

Shame & desire.  A black taffeta gown, with black satin cloak, hooded – I stand with hazel eyes deep and piercingly green.  Enticing enchantress, I turn and walk quickly back through wintry Dickensian alley . .. you follow.

I loved him for so many years.  Through births of each other’s children, through years of kids’ birthday parties, during game nights with theater friends, and New Year’s Eve parties (kids sleeping on floors) and one Disney vacation with 5-year old daughters twirling in princess gowns . . .oh how I loved him!  And the ease of that great love! the dancing, fiery, unmistakable pull of what we both knew, but hadn’t sought, and wouldn’t act upon (well, not for many years) – it was the most exquisite, shared secret:  a deep, black shining stone.  For a time, it was enough just to admire it, not even to name it, just this shared understanding of what was not ever to be, but what might have been possible, had life been different, or through  great and treacherous risk.

And then, there was cancer.
And then, there was my divorce.
And then, there was this opening, this moment, spilling out before us, like a spring river rushing in sunshine with golds and greens and spectacular pewter-y silvers .

I, now an unmarried woman.
He,  still a married man with children – children whom I loved as much as my own children, who called me “Aunt Colleen” and whose mother was my friend, but yet. I could, with little effort and no guilt,
lie to her face,
in the threshold of her own home.
for I knew (and he knew) that a love this strong could never be wrong.

Until it was wrong. Irrevocably wrong.

That last night, he stood at my front door, suitcase in hand, a scene out of an old Hollywood movie.  A moment we both had imagined and longed for, and yet . . .

He seemed changed.
His smile strained like thread pulled and glued on a puppet’s face
He couldn’t look at me.
His eyes like hot iron, hammered, darting this way and that. Unseeing.

He paced from one room to another room
like an animal, caged, unable to sit, even when sitting.
His presence felt like crackling high-tension wires

My son crept down the stairs in his pajamas, a look on his face like it was a Christmas morning, sleepy, bright and wondering eyes.   At once, I  stepped to the space between them, shepherding him back up, as calmly as I could, out of this invisible danger I sensed, but could not name.

I don’t remember what I said for the next several hours, as I made up the sofa bed with extra blankets and sheets. I do remember, though, how, as he lay there finally, his eyes seemed cold, loveless, like night-black stones.  They demanded satisfaction from me, an exacted payment for my having broken him.

I talked a lot.

Said all the words I could think of to convince him he needed to leave, that this wasn’t to be. That he needed to go home.  I remember his shadowy form as he hurried up the family room stairs, not turning and I not following. The front door open, then closed. A car motor started, then drifting away. And then silence.

The next morning his wife texted me:

“I know everything”
“He wants you to know that he is fine”
“He is in the hospital”
“He is not allowed to contact you”
“I am doing this because he made me promise to.”

To love someone and not to see. 

[Bipolar disorder.]

To me, that is the most shameful thing. 

6 thoughts on “Scarlet’s Letter

  1. Blown away by your bravery, and the way you unfold this. I stopped breathing. And I saw my own story that I keep under a blanket of silence, in part because it is still so confounding to me. You inspire me. Thank you.


  2. I’ve read through this again and again, smitten by your words, bravery, this story. Standing with you, dear Colleen. This story could be a stand alone essay submittable to a creative nonfiction journal. Message me if you want a few suggestions.


  3. You wrote a very thought provoking and ultimately sad piece. Sad because you never how unbelievably hard it was for the man in the story to leave you, and the permanent hole that’s in his heart by not having you a part of his life; his torment that he’s earned and deserves. There is no shame in being brave, Colleen. And at the ultimate moment, when he didn’t have the strength to be brave, you provided enough bravery for both them to get through it. A lonely time. A wonderful time looked back with fondness and sorrow that you were much more deserving than he was able to provide.

    Don’t be ashamed, Colleen. You were braver than this man could have been at that time. A bravery that’s made you stronger than you ever could know. I am proud of you, Colleen. And I am sorry. So sorry that I needed to grow up before I could become more brave like you and I still don’t think I’m there.

    I am sorry.


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